Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Steelers Activate Eli Rogers, Place Marcus Gilbert on IR, Possibly Ending his Time in Pittsburgh

His “Questionable” listing aside, don’t expect the Steelers to have James Conner suit up against the Patriots, but Pittsburgh’s offense will welcome back a familiar face after a long absence. In a move that had been anticipated, the Steelers activated Eli Rogers.

The Steelers had until the middle of this coming week to activate Rogers or end his season by putting him on IR. With Ryan Switzer nursing an ailing ankle and James Washington still trying to build a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, activating Eli Rogers makes sense.

While it is unknown what his role will be, Eli Rogers could provide a good number 3 target to help take heat off of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Eli Rogers

Steelers activate Eli Rogers ahead of Patriots game. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Gilbert Goes on IR, Ending his Season, Possible Career with Steelers

Of course, to activate Eli Rogers meant the Steelers had to let someone go. The obvious candidate would be Trey Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds brother who was recently added from the practice squad. But with James Conner, Edmunds will serve as the emergency back behind Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels.

There are not too many “expendables” on the defensive side of the ball either, with Daniel McCullers or perhaps L.T. Walton being the only candidates.

  • As it turns out the elephant was sitting in the room.

The Steelers opted to put right tackle Marcus Gilbert on season-ending injured reserve to make way for Eli Rogers. Marcus Gilbert opened the season as the Steelers starter at right tackle, missed the Steelers week 3 win over Tampa Bay, returned for weeks 4, 5 and 6 but has been out since then.

Given that Marcus Gilbert also missed 7 games in 2017, and given that Gilbert is set to make close to 5 million dollars in the final year of his contract, one would have to think that the Steelers would consider moving on.

If that do, that will be a real shame, as Marcus Gilbert played a major role in the transformation of the Steelers offensive line from a unit cobbled together with a Plug and Patch approach, to one of the NFL’s best.

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4 Random Thoughts to Put the Steelers Current Chaos into Context

A lot changes in one week in the NFL. Seven days ago the question facing the Steelers was whether Ben Roethlisberger could shake off the rust. Today the Steelers defense looks like a sieve, and Pittsburgh is momentarily last in the AFC North.

And to make things worse, this was a week of 10-12 hour work days, which means no blogging so instead here are 4 Random Thoughts on the Steelers 2018 season thus far.

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

Antonio Brown confronts Randy Fichtner. Photo Credit: NFL.com

1. The Defense Wasn’t As Bad Against Kansas City as it Was Against Jacksonville

When the outcome of Sunday’s home opener against the Chiefs became apparent, fans rushed to compare it to the January disaster against the Jaguars. That’s not an accurate description.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t as bad against the Chiefs as it had been against the Jaguars. It was worse.

Jacksonville’s defense scored a touchdown. The Steelers offense also gift-wrapped another. Kansas City got no such stocking suffers from the Steelers offense, although Danny Smith’s special teams did set up the Chiefs first touchdown.

But when comparing the two games consider this:

  • Sean Spence was playing whereas a month before he’d been out of football.
  • Javon Hargrave was hurt, and played very little, yielding to L.T. Walton.
  • Injuries forced Stephon Tuitt to play with essentially one arm.
  • Mike Mitchell was manning the deep safety slot.

Since that awful January performance, the Steelers have signed Jon Bostic, cleaned house in the secondary, bringing in Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds. John Mitchell has gone upstairs replaced by Karl Dunbar, while Carnell Lake has left (and no, I don’t entirely buy reports that Lake left on his own) and Tom Bradley has taken his place.

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have switched sides. Players like Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and Artie Burns have had another year to develop and mature. Oh, and Pittsburgh has had a full off season to work on the “communication problems” that plagued Keith Butler‘s defense.

  • As Cam Heyward reminded, there IS a lot of football left to be played.

But thus far the Steelers defense appears to be getting worse, not better. The bright side? They have no where to go but up.

2. Antonio Brown’s Antics Are No Longer “Minor Annoyances”

When asked about Antonio Brown‘s Facebook live incident, Steelers President Art Rooney II described it as “minor annoyances.” Against the Chiefs, Browns walked off of the field, and got into shouting matches with Randy Fichtner and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

Later this week Antonio Brown explained his outburst as a non-outburst, and offered that his non-outburst was fueled by the fact that the Steelers were losing by 40.

  • Except they weren’t, because James Conner was barreling into the end zone with an impressive second effort to tie the game.

All wide receivers want the ball. Hines Ward, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were no different. Yet none of them became Divas. While Antonio Brown has flashed signs of Diva like behavior in the past, it wouldn’t have been fair to have labeled him as such before.

  • Is it fair to label Antonio Brown a Diva now?

Time will tell, but at this point his behavior has passed the point of being “minor annoyances.”

3. Mike Tomlin Has “Lost Control of the Locker Room”

That’s a popular narrative. And to some degree, whenever you’re losing, everything your critiques they say is true. But there’s really not a lot of evidence to support the “locker room is out of control” missive.

  • Yes, Antonio Brown is a distraction (see above).
  • Yes, Le’Veon Bell‘s absence is an on-going story.

But is there anyone else in the locker room that is a problem child? So far, no. And sure, the Steelers do seem to have serious issues on defense. But let’s keep those in context.

In 1990, Joe Walton arrived, and installed an offense that his players hated and struggled to grasp. The 1990 Steelers went one month without scoring an offensive touchdown. Assistant coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the headsets.

  • Even Joe Greene remarked, “I hope this isn’t our identity” when quizzed about Walton’s finesse offense.

There may be some legit issues in terms of the Tomlin-Butler relationship on managing the defense, but 2 weeks into the season, the Steelers locker room has hardly gone rouge.

4. Tomlin and Colbert’s Gambles Look a Lot More Questionable Today

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin gambled 14.5 million dollars in salary cap space that Le’Veon Bell would be back. That’s 14.5 million that could have gone to the defense. At the time it looked like a wise gamble.

  • As of now, the Steelers are getting nothing form that 14.5 million, and next spring all the extra cap space won’t knock any years off of Ben Roethlisberger’s age.

On defense the Steelers gambled that they could bring in Jon Bostic as a stop gap measure and stuck to their guns in the 2018 NFL Draft when they couldn’t get one of the inside linebackers they wanted. The thought was that the Steelers could compensate by deploying extra defensive backs.

  • Thus far that doesn’t look to be the case.

But week 3 is only beginning, and there’s still a lot of football left to play.

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Steelers 2018 Roster Balances Super Bowl Hopes with Long-Term Viability

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 roster is nearing completion and the choices Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have made balance the teams Super Bowl aspirations with an eye towards sustaining long term success.

  • In case you’ve been under a rock, the Steelers roster cuts included a minor bombshell when the team cut Landry Jones.

The Steelers also cut Nat Berhe, but resigned him after placing Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on injured reserve, which will keep the undrafted free agent rookie out of the lineup for the next two weeks. The Steelers have not made any trades nor have they tried to claim any players on waivers.

That could change as the week evolves but the Steelers 2018 opening day roster is pretty well set.

Antonio Brown, Heinz Field, pregame warm ups

Antonio Brown in pre-game warmups at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Roster

Quarterbacks

Ben Roethlisberger
Joshua Dobbs
Mason Rudolph

Cutting Landry Jones was a major surprise, and for the first time since 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open the season without a veteran signal caller as their backup quarterback. The Steelers are clearly taking a short-term risk in the name of making a long-term investment.

Running Back

James Conner
Jaylen Samuels
Stevan Ridley
Roosevelt Nix

The elephant in the room’s name is Le’Veon Bell as of Tuesday morning, Bell had not signed his franchise tag nor given any indication as to whether or when he would do so. The Steelers clearly didn’t expect this, as they likely would not have cut Fitzgerald Toussaint. Should Bell stay away, the running back by committee crowd will get its wish.

Tight End

Vance McDonald
Jesse James
Xavier Grimble

The biggest news here is the move the Steelers haven’t made yet. Injuries have abounded at tight end, yet the Steelers haven’t made any move to bring in an outside player.

Wide Receivers

Antonio Brown
JuJu Smith-Schuster
James Washington
Justin Hunter
Ryan Switzer
Darrius Heyward-Bey

Antonio Brown all of preseason, supposedly only as a precaution. The Steelers have high hopes for JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington while Justin Hunter looked good in preseason. Again. Ryan Switzer is an unknown while Darrius Heyward-Bey is mainly on the roster to play special teams.

Offensive Line

Alejandro Villanueva
Ramon Foster
Maurkice Pouncey
David DeCastro
Marcus Gilbert
B.J. Finney
Chukwuma Okorafor
Matt Feiler
Zach Banner

Some felt the Steelers would only keep 8 offensive lineman, however Zach Banner made the cut despite joining the team late in the summer. You can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line

Cam Heyward
L.T. Walton
Javon Hargrave
Dan McCullers
Stephon Tuitt
Tyson Alualu

Cam Heyward is officially a “tackle” and Karl Dunbar has brought Daniel McCullers further along than anyone ever expected.

Outside Linebacker

T.J. Watt
Bud Dupree
Anthony Chickillo

1 year ago the Steelers carried 5 players here. Now they have 3 albeit with one rookie on IR and another on the practice squad.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Inside Linebacker

Vince Williams
Jon Bostic
L.J. Fort
Tyler Matakevich
Matthew Thomas

The “battle” between Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic never really evolved and Matthew Thomas has insiders privately wondering whether his role can grow as the season evolves. Insight linebacker might not have to be a strength for the Steelers defense in 2018, but it cannot be a liability.

Cornerback

Joe Haden
Artie Burns
Mike Hilton
Cam Sutton
Coty Sensabaugh

In contrast to quarterback, the Steelers opted for experience over youth, in keeping Coty Sensagaugh over Brian Allen, although Brian Allen remains on the practice squad. For once, the Steelers have strong depth on paper.

Safety

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

Morgan Burnett
Sean Davis
Terrell Edmunds
Nat Berhe
Jordan Dangerfield

Sean Davis is the only player who returns from 2017 in the entire unit, although Jordan Dangerfield was on IR. The Steelers have invested heavily in this position and for the defense to improve, those investments must deliver.

Specialists

Chris Boswell
Jordan Berry
Kameron Canaday

Jordan Berry did not post pretty preseason numbers, nonetheless, he made the team. Next time you’re in a Steelers bar either A. Ask people “Who is our long snapper” or B. “Who is Kameron Canaday?” No matter which question you ask, here’s 100 Argentine pesos that says 1% of the people you poll have the right answer. Anonymity is a virtue for a long snapper. Let’s hope we don’t hear “Kameron Canaday” until free agency rolls around.

Steelers 2018 Practice Squad

Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker
Brian Allen, Cornerback
Jarvion Franklin, Running Back
Trey Griffey, Wide Receiver
Bucky Hodges, Tight End
Lavon Hooks, Defensive End
Farrington Huguenin, Outside Linebacker
Tevin Jones, Wide Receiver
Patrick Morris, Offensive Line
R.J. Prince, Offensive Line
Christian Scotland-Williamson, Tight End

Perhaps conspicuous by his absences was Joshua Fraizer, the Steelers 7th round draft pick. Christian Scotland-Williamson holds a spot thanks to the International Player Pathway. Trey Griffey is of course the son of Ken Griffey Jr. and the grandson of Ken Griffey Sr. Keion Adams and Brian Allen are members of the Steelers 2017 draft class.

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Steelers Draft Joshua Frazier in 7th Round, Uniting Alabama Alum with Karl Dunbar

What do new Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and new Steelers secondary coach Tom Bradley have in common? They both get to work with players from their respective college coaching perches.

  • Pittsburgh made sure of that when the Steelers drafted Joshua Frazier in the 7th round, reuniting the defensive lineman from Alabama with his college coach.

Earlier on day 3 of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Steelers also drafted Marcus Allen of Penn State, the same school where Tom Bradley made his name in the NCAA ranks.

Joshua Frazier, Steelers 7th round pick

Steelers 7th round pick gets a sack for his 1st career tackle

As a 7th round pick for a playoff team, Joshua Frazier was the 246th player drafted, which stands in stark contrast to the man who surpassed him on the depth chart, Da’Ron Payne who went 13th overall after the Washington Redskins called his number.

Outwardly at least, Fraizer wasn’t bitter about things, assuring reporters: “I have no regrets, no regrets. Things worked out the way they did. … I feel like I had some of the same attributes that Payne brought to the table.”

And to be certain, Fraizer’s highlight video supports him:

Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar also shared this on his former and current protégée “It’s the luck of the draw sometimes when you go to a team that has a lot of talent. It’s almost like the Wally Pipp story. He took a day off and never got the job back,” while assuring “He’s a big, strong kid and he can command two blockers.”

As a 7th round pick, Joshua Frazier must make the team in training camp. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave have the starting spots locked up while Tyson Alualu has the number 4 lineman spot secured. That means pits Fraizer against L.T. Walton and Daniel McCullers for what will likely be the 53rd spot on the active roster.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Joshua Frazier.

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Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs – Is Line Deep Enough for a Super Bowl Run?

“Rebuilding.” It is a term that both Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin passionately rejected when the Steelers were enduring twin 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013.

  • Semantics aside, the Steelers were rebuilding following Super Bowl XVL, particularly on defense.

Kevin Colbert adopted a front-to-back approach to rebuilding and while each position area on the defensive depth charts has seen its ups and downs, Colbert has clearly enjoyed the most success with the defensive line. Is that success sufficient to sustain the Steelers quest for Lombardi Number 7, or should the Steelers again look to defensive line heading into 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

Consume draft day comments from team executives with a grain of salt. No head coach or general manager is going blurt out:

Yeah, believe it or not  all 8 of the guys we thought would be on the board and anted to pick were gone and, to be frank, the trade offers we got were shitty. So we had no other choice but to take Joe Smith. But hey, we’re glad to have him on the team, and are excited to welcome him to city. No, really….

However, when the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward 1st round in the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert proclaimed it a “historic day” for the franchise. Kevin Colbert was right. Cameron Heyward was the first player to join the Steelers following Super Bowl XLV, and it is hard to conceive of a better player to begin your rebuild project with.

Cam Heyward has been a difference maker for the Steelers since becoming a starter in mid-2013, but his efforts have largely been ignored outside of Pittsburgh. In 2017 Cam Heyward made the 1st team AP All Pro team, after recording a record 12.5 sacks.

  • Next to Heyward, the Steelers have Stephon Tuitt, who has had to deal with nagging injuries and might not have matched Heyward’s numbers, but is clearly an elite defensive end.

Playing between these two giants, is Javon Hargrave, the Steelers 3rd round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft. Javon Hargrave had a phenomenal rookie year in 2016, and started 2017 off strong, only to be dogged by back injuries during the later portion of the season.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Rotation fueled much of the success of former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell’s system. Whether he was starting Kevin Henry, Joel Steed and Ray Seals, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel or the Steelers current starting trio, Mitchell believed in mixing in a fresh body throughout the game.

  • During 2014, 2015 and even 2016 the Steelers lacked the personnel to effectively.

Cam Thomas simply wasn’t good enough and while Ricardo Mathews represented a bit of an upgrade, the Steelers played the 2nd half of 2016 without Cam Heyward.

Last spring the Steelers signed Tyson Alualu who provided that vital fourth man the makes the Steelers defensive line rotation work. 2017 marked a big year for L.T. Walton, who saw his snap count almost double, and he recorded his first two sacks in wins against Tennessee and Green Bay. Newly resigned Daniel McCullers will be back, as apparently Karl Dunbar would like to extend the young man yet another chance.

Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers defensive line is a unit influx. Since Keith Butler took the reigns, the Steelers have played in their base, 3-4 defense less frequently including alignments that employ four down lineman. Recently, as pointed out by a questioner on Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered, the Steelers  now list Cameron Heyward as a defensive tackle.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

However, health as opposed to any of those changes are the important drivers of the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs.

Javon Hargrave struggled with injuries during the later half of 2017 and didn’t appear to play much during the playoff loss to the Jaguars. L.T. Walton played in his place, and he too had elbow surgery. Stephon Tuitt missed four games due to injury and was also on the injury list going into the playoffs.

  • Do those injuries offer a warning sign for 2018? Only the Steelers medical staff knows.

Absent any insight, its best to assume that this medical wild card won’t come into play and, while the Steelers could use someone to push Daniel McCullers, their depth at defensive line remains solid, and therefore the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

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April Fools Arrives Early? Nope. Steelers Resign Daniel McCullers to 1 Year Contract. Seriously

Sometimes you really must take care with what you wish for. Three years ago yours truly had the idea to do a “Steelers Resign Clifton Geathers” article as an April Fools joke. Instead we went with the faux Steelers trade Lawrence Timmons to Miami one that did so well that a credentialed press member actually called the Steelers to verify the nonexistent trade.

  • Which turned out to be a wise choice, because the Steelers actually DID resign Clifton Geathers on April 1st.

That was then, this is now. While I wasn’t planning on doing it, it occurred to me that a Daniel McCullers resigning might be good April Fools fodder (didn’t do an April Fools article last year, and probably won’t this year. Or will I…..?_)

  • Well, good thing that wasn’t this year’s plan, because it would be back to the drawing board:

The day’s news saw the Pittsburgh Steelers resign Daniel McCullers to a one year contract. One can only assume that it is for a veteran minimum which would guarantee McCullers nothing, but at this point in his career one has to wonder why the Steelers would even devote one of their 90 off season roster spots Daniel McCullers.

Daniel McCullers, David Andrews, Steelers vs Patriots

In a rare action shot, Daniel McCullers holds off David Andrews. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

As our free agent focus profile of Daniel McCullers pointed out, “Big D = Disappointment.” At 6’7″ and 350 plus pounds, Daniel McCullers is every defensive coordinator’s fantasy. Yet measurable don’t always mean much in the NFL, and Daniel McCullers did make some progress from his rookie to sophomore years, but has seen scant little since then.

  • In fact McCullers snap counts went from 9% and change in 2015, to 17% and change in 2016, to 1.33% in 2017.

That’s decidedly the wrong direction.

Too Early to Declare a “Dunbar Effect?”

In looking the prospects of the Steelers resigning Daniel McCullers, about the only plausible scenario involved new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar coming in, reviewing film, and seeing something he feels he could salvage.

  • Perhaps Karly Dunbar has done just that.

Because really, even with Justin Hargrave not making a lot of growth between his first and second year, and even with L.T. Walton perhaps hitting a plateau, Daniel McCullers body after four years in the NFL offers scant justification for a second NFL contract, even at the veteran minimum.

The Steelers declined to activate Daniel McCullers for all but six games in 2017, including the AFC divisional playoff loss the the Jaguars, despite knowing that both Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt were less than 100% going into the game.

  • Perhaps McCullers had an undisclosed injury. That would explain a lot.

Whatever the reasons is, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell and Karl Dunbar are far more qualified to make that judgment that me. But this resigning is a real head scratcher.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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“D”= “Disappointment” Steelers Free Agent Daniel McCullers Shows Sometimes Measurables Don’t Mean Much

Editors note: Steelers resigned Daniel McCullers on 3/22/18

Sometimes measurables don’t amount to much in NFL football.

Let’s pair that opening with a confession of sorts. When I started seriously following the Steelers as a teenager (as much you could follow the Steelers from suburban Maryland in those pre-internet days) I was also very much into pro wrestling. It was the heyday of the WWF, after all.

  • And my enthusiasm for the two “sports” led me to build football rosters comprised of wrestlers on the Apple IIc version of John Madden Football.

OK, enjoy a good laugh, but remember I was in Junior High then. The point to this tangent, is that this John Madden Football “project” was inspired in no small part by wondering “What would it be like if Andre the Giant had played football?”

In some ways, the 2014 NFL Draft gave the Steelers a similar opportunity, when Daniel McCullers was on the board in the 6th round. Here was a man so immense they called him “Shady Tree.” Surely, with the right tutelage  someone so thoroughly enormous couldn’t but help dominate, right? Well, as Big D Daniel McCullers is about to become a free agent, “D” doesn’t stand for domination, it stands for “Disappointment.”

Daniel McCullers, David Andrews, Steelers vs Patriots

In one of his rare action shots, Daniel McCullers goes head-to-head against David Andrews. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Daniel McCullers’ Steelers Career

Daniel McCullers sat on the bench during his rookie season only seeing his first action in the Steelers win over the Houston Texas. McCullers appeared in 8 more games as a rookie and only recorded two tackles, but looked capable of doing what nose tackles should do, clog up the middle of the field.

  • In 2015, during his second year McCullers played in 12 games and nearly doubled his snap count from his rookie season. Things seemed to be heading in the right direction.

In 2016 McCullers saw action in all 16 games, blocking a field goal against Miami and recording a sack in the season finale against Cleveland. However, despite the season-ending injury to Cam Heyward, McCuller’s snap count only increased from 9% to 17% – rookie Javon Hargrave’s played in 47% of defensive snaps by comparison.

To the surprise of many, McCullers made the Steelers final 53 man roster in 2017, but he only played in 13 snaps during the regular season, as L.T. Walton suplanted him as the team’s top backup nose tackle. That’s 13 snaps, not 13% of snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

The case for the Steelers resigning Daniel McCullers comes down to this: 6’7” 352 pounds. A guy that big has got to be able to do some damage on the football field, right? And you might as well have him during damage for you rather than against you, right?

He hasn’t done it so far, but patience is a virtue, isn’t it?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

The fact that McCuller’s measurable forms the strongest case you can make for resigning Daniel McCullers is in itself damming. After four years in the NFL, McCullers has a total of 16 tackles. The Steelers have given Daniel McCullers chances, and he has never delivered.

At this point it would be hard to justify even a veteran minimum contract for McCullers, given that there has to be a rookie out there who offers legitimate “upside.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Daniel McCullers

AFC Divisional playoff loss to the Jaguars should tell you all you need to know about what the Steelers think of Daniel McCullers. The Steelers knew Stephon Tuitt was ailing going into the game, and probably knew that Jarvon Hargrave was less than 100%. Yet, they chose to leave McCullers on the inactive list.

  • John Mitchell took undrafted rookie free agents like Chris Hoke and Steve McLendon, and transformed them into competent, quality nose tackles.

Mitchell had four years to work with McCullers, but even the best position coaches struggle to develop potential at times. Could Karl Dunbar be the answer? The Steelers new defensive line coach brings an impressive track record to Pittsburgh an perhaps can argue that he sees something on film that would justify bringing McCullers back to St. Vincents.

That’s theoretically possible, but not practically plausible so expect McCullers and the Steelers to move in different directions.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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New Steelers Defensive Line Coach Karl Dunbar Returns to Pittsburgh with Big Shoes to Fill

In tandem with the announcement that Tom Bradley was joining the Steelers coaching staff as defensive backs coach, the team also announced that Karl Dunbar will return to Pittsburgh to assume the role of defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, who has held the title of Steelers defensive line coach since 1994, will move into a full time roll as assistant head coach. And in doing so, Mitchell leaves Karl Dunbar with incredibly large shoes to fill.

Karl Dunbar

Karl Dunbar, Steelers new defensive line coach. Photo Credit: Mark Rebilas, USA Today, via SCI

Steel Curtain Rising will have a longer look at John Mitchell’s tenure as defensive line coach in the future, but “distinguished” would be the first word the comes to mind. It’s often said that “NFL” means “Not for Long” and assistant coaches are hired to be fired.

  • By surviving two head coaches and 6 defensive coordinators alone Mitchell has beaten the system.

Not bad for a man who arrived in Pittsburgh and was tasked with succeeding Steel Curtain veteran Steve Furness.

Karl Dunbar is no stranger to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chuck Noll took him as a defensive lineman in the 8th round the 1990 NFL Draft, although Dunbar did not make the team. Dunbar did get NFL experience playing for the New Orleans Saints in 1993 and the Arizona Cardinals in 1994 and 1995.

Dunbar coached for the Chicago Bears in 2004, and then moved on to Minnesota in 2006, where he worked for Mike Tomlin. Dunbar stayed in Minnesota until 2011, and then coached defensive line for the New York Jets from 2012 to 2014 and then with the Buffalo Bills in 2015.

  • Karl Dunbar has worked on Nick Saben’s staff at Alabama during 2016 and 2017.

If John Mitchell, who knows Dunbar from their days at LSU, leaves a big shoes to fill, he’s also giving his successor an awesome set of tools to work with. Cam Heyward is arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL and if Stephon Tuitt can manage to stay healthy, he could give Heyward a run for his money.

Javon Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year and continues to offer plenty of “upside” while Tyson Alualu has proven to be an invaluable 4th lineman. L.T. Walton certainly struggled in relief of Hargrave in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, he offers valuable depth.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card – Defense, Coaches Fall Short for Black & Gold

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t figure out whether he’s got a star group of pupils that under achieved or an  average group that over achieved here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card.

Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Roosevelt Nix leads Le’Veon Bell past Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
In a welcome change from 2015 and 2016, injuries forced no other quarterback other than Ben Roethlisberger to take a snap. And Landry Jones performed well when given a chance. People will forget, but Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily on the front end of the 2017 season, yet he pulled his play up so much that is total season number are only a hair off of 2016. Credit Roethlisberger for mastering the end of 1st half two-minute drill and authoring numerous 4th quarter comebacks. But his Jacksonville regular season performance was a disaster, he made a critical error at the end of the Patriots game and his playoff turnovers were costly which brings his grade down. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Once again Le’Veon Bell served as a work horse for this offense, touching the ball 406 times. Started slowing, and didn’t have a dominant type year that he had before, but he was clearly an asset and was clearly indispensable. James Conners looked good in limited action and so did Stevan Ridley. In the background was Roosevelt Nix, who did well enough at fullback to earn Pro Bowl honors. Running back was clearly a team strength in 2017. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald struggled early, but by the time November arrived, no one was questioning the Steelers decision to trade for him. And while Jesse James did well, the contrast between his impact and McDonald’s reveals the difference between a number 2 tight end and a number one. Xavier Grimble had 5 catches, but didn’t distinguish himself during McDonald’s absence. And the Steelers tight ends still need to block better. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown is clearly the best wide receiver in football. His value to the Steelers is immeasurable. After a year-long suspension Martavis Bryant rarely flashed the big play ability he showed in 2014 and 2015, but as the season progress his play become more consistent and he made several critical catches down the stretch. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the big news of the unit, turning in a sensational rookie year. Eli Rogers struggled early but played well late in the season and in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter failed to distinguish themselves. Grade: A

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard romp. Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks were up a bit, but nowhere near pre-2013 levels. While run blocking was generally solid, there were times when it lacked the road-grading quality that would be expected of an offensive line comprised of starters in their second contract, although Marcus Gilbert was out of the lineup a lot, but Chris Hubbard filled in admirably. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a monster year finishing with 12 sacks, the most for a defensive lineman since Aaron Smith in 2004. Stephon Tuitt had a strong year, when healthy, but saw his sack total elipsed by back up Tyson Alualu. Javon Hargrave started the year strong, but faded down the stretch, and L.T. Walton was not up to replacing him in the playoffs. With injuries decimating the linebacking crops, the Steelers defensive line would figure to be a key unit to compensate, but they were not at least when it counted in the playoffs. Grade: B-

Ben Roethlisberger Ryan Shazier jersey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger with Ryan Shazier’s jersey after the Steelers win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Who was the Steelers MVP? Ryan Shazier. Neither the defense, nor the linebacking crops was remotely the same without him. T.J. Watt was a clear bright spot, netting 7 sack, pulling down an interception and defending 7 passes, making him an all-around asset. Bud Dupree started with 3 sacks in the first six games, then only added 3 more in the next ten. The inside linebacking depth which appeared solid on paper, particularly given Arthur Moats position flexibility, was a mirage on the field. Grade: C-

Secondary
The Joe Haden signing had it skeptics, but he was clearly a difference maker on the defense, as highlighted by his absence. Both Sean Davis and Artie Burns, rookie darlings from 2016, failed to make the second year leap and Burns showed clear signs of regression. Mike Mitchell talked a good game, but more often than not failed to back it up on the field. He delivered no turnovers and defensed only 2 passes. Rookie Mike Hilton was another sensation and a true bright spot. Kevin Colbert has made a lot of shrewd, bang for the buck free agent signings, Coty Sensabaugh is not one of them. Grade: C-

Special Teams
For several years running, special teams coach Danny Smith has been a favorite whipping boy of Steelers Nation. This year the team made some noise with a punt block in the first game, a successful fake punt, and stop on a fake punt. On sides kicks remain an issue however…. Chris Boswell had a phenomenal year kicking and Jordan Berry was solid. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers coaching, specifically Mike Tomlin will be addressed at length in our 2017 Season Review.

Todd Haley took a lot of heat during the year, much of it a little too over the top, but his own stated goal was 30 points a game, a threshold that the Steelers only topped once.

And if the offense suffered from slow starts by Ben Rothlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, for all the gaudy statistics, for all the comebacks and for all the cash the Steelers have invested in the unit, it came up short at critical moments such as the end of the Patriots game and in the first quarter and a half against the Jaguars when a long, clock-consuming drive would have been a difference maker.

  • News of Mike Tomlin’s extensive involvement with the defense makes Keith Butler’s job harder to evaluate.
  • Prior to the injuries to Joe Haden and then Ryan Shazier, the Steelers defense was hinting at shut down capability.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Mike Tomlin Jaguars playoff loss. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

That’s easy to forget after dropping 45 points to the Jaguars, but it is fact. What happened and who bears responsibility? It is hard to know for sure, but Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave all failed to make the second year leap, the Steelers Red Zone defense was terrible and in the playoffs they looked every bit the team whose head coach and defensive coordinator were not on the same page.

  • The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with a lot of adversity, some if it their own making, some of it not.

During the regular season, Mike Tomlin managed to keep his team winning. Certainly, many of those wins were too close for comfort, but style points don’t count.

At the end of the day however, the only conclusion from the Jaguars game is that the Steelers were not prepared, and given the tenuous status of the Steelers Super Bowl window, that is simply inexcusable. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
Every defense needs a scrapper. A guy who makes the tough tackle, is there at the line of scrimmage, plays cleanup man on the quarterback when the secondary has everyone covered. A guy who craves contact. While Ryan Shaizer’s absence did expose is limits as an athlete, Vince Williams, he of the 8 sacks, was that man for the Steelers defense for much of the year and for that he wins Unsung Hero honors for the Steelers 2017 season.

 

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